RC practice Passage with Explanation -17

The last ice age has left its telltales written quite clearly across the landscape. When Louis Agassiz first promulgated his theory that ice had once covered the Swiss countryside, he looked to the valleys there that retain glaciers to this day. Like other observers, he noted the presence of strange boulders, called "erratics, " tossed down in valleys like flotsam after a flood had drained away. He saw the strange polish along the bedrock—a sheen imparted as if by some massive swipe of sandpaper; he saw the debris of rocks and boulders fringing the margin of existing glaciers. He saw what can be seen still, markings in stone that indicated that ice once flowed over vast stretches of land now clear and verdant.

The first great glaciations must have scored the earth as deeply in their turn, and, in principle, we ought to be able to track the history of the early ice ages by following the same reasoning Agassiz used to persuade himself and his contemporaries that ice once covered the earth. But the marks left by these earlier glaciations are quite subtle, tracks turned ghostly with great age. There are, however, telltale deposits of ancient rocks that strongly suggest that they had been ground together and laid down by the spread of ice.

The Australian climate historian L.A. Frakes has prospected through various theories proposed to account for those early ice ages. He isn't terribly enthusiastic about any of the possible culprits, but his choice for the least unlikely of them all emerges out of the recent revival of what was once a radically unorthodox idea: that continents drift over the face of the planet. Frakes argues that the glaciers originated at sites near the poles and that the ice ages began because the continents of the early earth had drifted to positions that took more and more of their land nearer to the polar regions.

More land near the poles meant that more precipitation fell as snow and could be compacted on land to form glaciers. With enough glaciers, the increase in the amount of sunlight reflected back into space off the glistening white sheen of the ice effectively reduced the amount by which the sun warmed the earth, creating the feedback loop by which the growth of glaciers encouraged the growth of more glaciers. Rocks have been found in North America, Africa and Australia whose ages appear to hover around the 2.3 billion—year—old mark. That date and their spread are vague enough, however, to make it almost impossible to determine just how much of the earth was icebound during the possible range of time in which each of the glacial deposits was formed.

Uncertainties about both the timing and the extent of these glaciers also muddy the search for the cause of the ancient ice ages. The record is so spotty that geologists are not sure whether areas near the equator or nearer the poles were the coolest places on earth. It's also possible that volcanic eruptions had tossed enough dust into the atmosphere to screen out sunlight and cool the earth. While some of the glacial records in the rocks do indeed contain evidence of volcanic activity prior to the buildup of glacial debris, others do not.

Such traces are the currency of science—data—and like money, a richness of data both buys you some credibility and ties you down, eliminating at least some theoretically plausible explanations. For this early period, theorists have come up with a variety of ideas to explain the ancient ice ages, all elegant and mostly immune to both proof and criticism. For example, a change in the earth's orbit could have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the planet. However, the only physical signature of such an event that would show in the rocks would be the marks of the glaciers themselves.


According to the passage, which of the following is most likely to be true about the relationship between the amount of data one has about a phenomenon and the number of theoretically plausible explanations?

[A] The greater the amount of data, the greater the number of theoretically plausible explanations.
[B] The greater the amount of data, the fewer the number of theoretically plausible explanations.
[C] The smaller the amount of data, the fewer the number of theoretically plausible explanations.
[D] There is no connection between the amount of data and the number of theoretically plausible explanations.
Option: 2

Where does the author discuss this? All of paragraph 6; paraphrase the point: the less data one has the freer one is to form explanations. It may take a little scanning to get to (B); remember to look for the converses of your prediction in questions like this.

Wrong answers:

(A): Opposite. The author argues that a greater amount of data "ties you down. "

(C): Opposite. This is just the flip—side of (A), and also opposite.

(D): Opposite. The author spends paragraph 6 arguing that there is a connection.


Based on the passage, with which of the following statements would the author most likely NOT disagree?

[A] Recent geological events can be substantially easier to investigate than ancient ones.
[B] Deposits of ground—up rocks always indicate that an ice age occurred.
[C] Discovering the cause of the ancient ice ages will have important practical consequences.
[D] Each of the early ice ages had a different proximate cause.
Option: 1

What is the author's main purpose of writing the passage? It's a bit more difficult to paraphrase purposes in an objective passage, but the author clearly intends to show that data on the ancient ice ages is sketchy. The author argues throughout the first half the passage that it's hard to understand much about the earlier ice ages because the evidence is so much older than that of later glaciations. This would suggest that investigating later ice ages, and geologic events in general, is easier: (A).

Wrong answers:

(B): Distortion. Though ground—up rocks appear in the end of paragraph 2 as evidence of an ice age, there's nothing to suggest that the author believes they always indicate an ice age (note the extreme word "always ").

(C): Out of Scope. The author isn't concerned with the consequences of the theories, only the theories and evidences themselves.

(D): Distortion. While the author argues that there are different theories, each ice age didn't necessarily have a different cause.


There is an implicit assumption in the statement that geologists don't know whether the coolest places on earth were near the poles or near the equator. The assumption is that:

[A] both polar and equatorial glacial deposits have been found.
[B] certain geological information can be considered lost forever.
[C] it is more important to determine the date of the ice ages than the extent of the glaciers.
[D] the glaciers were extremely mobile in spite of their mass.
Option: 1

Try to get a basic prediction for assumption questions if possible. If scientists don't know whether the poles or the equator were the coolest, they must have some sort of evidence that both were awfully cold. (A) fits this. If unsure, try the denial test: If glacial deposits haven't been found at both, then one should be demonstrably colder than the other.

Wrong answers:

(B): Distortion. The argument that scientists are unsure doesn't depend on the idea that some geological information is forever gone. While this may be true, it's not why scientists are unsure.

(C): Out of Scope. This has nothing to do with the statement.

(D): Out of Scope. Even if this were true, it still wouldn't explain why geologists were unsure which part of the earth had been the coolest.


Suppose that an advocate of the "change in orbit " theory of the ancient ice ages criticizes a defender of the "volcanic eruption " theory on the grounds that only some of the glacial records contain evidence of prior volcanic activity. The defender might justifiably counter this attack by pointing out that:

[A] a change in the earth's orbit would have increased rather than reduced the sunlight reaching the planet.
[B] volcanoes could not possibly release enough dust to block the atmosphere.
[C] a theory that has some supporting evidence is better than a theory that cannot be proved.
[D] a theory should be so constructed as to be immune from proof.
Option: 3

The author mentions both of these theories; paraphrase what is said about them: the volcanic theory has some evidence in glacial records; the orbital change theory has no evidence at all. The volcano—scientist would be quick to point this out in his defense; (C) says the same thing.

Wrong answers:

(A): Out of Scope. We have no way of knowing from the passage the consequences of a change of orbit.

(B): Opposite. The advocate of the volcano theory wouldn't help his cause with this.

(D): Distortion. While the author mentions that these theories are immune from proof, that's not necessarily something in their favor, nor would it distinguish the vulcanologist's argument from that of the orbital theorists.


Suppose paleobotanists discover that during geological periods of reduced sunlight, ancient forests died away, leaving fossilized remains. What is the relevance of this information to the passage?

[A] It supports the claim that dust from volcanic eruptions caused the ice ages.
[B] It weakens the claim that dust from volcanic eruptions caused the ice ages.
[C] It supports the claim that ice ages were accompanied by widespread loss of vegetation.
[D] It weakens the claim that the only evidence of a change in orbit would be glacier marks.
Option: 4

What would cause reduced sunlight? Only an orbital change. Think back on what the author says about the orbital change theory: its only evidence is the glaciation itself. This new evidence would therefore weaken the author's argument about the orbital theory: (D).

Wrong answers:

(A): Out of Scope. Though volcanic eruptions can lead to a reduction in the amount of sunlight that reaches earth, it isn't necessarily the case here.

(B): Out of Scope. As above. This evidence is outside the scope of the volcanic theory.

(C): Opposite. The author never makes this claim.


In the context of the passage, the term physical signature (last paragraph) refers primarily to the:

[A] proper attribution of a theory to its creator.
[B] concrete evidence that the earth's orbit changed.
[C] the impetus that pushed the earth out of its orbit.
[D] the growth of the glaciers at the polar caps.
Option: 2

Look at the phrase in context: the author argues that the only evidence of the orbital theory would be glacial marks on the rocks. With the quick read back, (B) is an easy pickup.

Wrong answers:

(A): Out of Scope. This isn't mentioned in the context of the phrase.

(C): Out of Scope. The author is talking about evidence rather than causes.

(D): Opposite. This isn't mentioned together with the phrase either.


In order to evaluate Frakes' theory about the origin of the glaciers and the ice ages, it would be most helpful to know from him:

[A] why the idea of continental drift had fallen into disfavor in the past.
[B] how much snow is required to form a glacier.
[C] what could have broken the glacier growth feedback loop.
[D] how soon the continents will again drift toward the polar regions.
Option: 3

Go back to the passage to review what Frakes says. The third paragraph gives you what you need: land masses moved towards the poles, snowfall increased, and a feedback loop was established. This begs the question: if there was a positive feedback loop, why isn't the world still covered by glaciers? (C) matches up. Even if you didn't make this prediction, this is the only answer choice that fits the scope of Frakes' evidence.

Wrong answers:

(A): Out of Scope. The theory's popularity isn't useful to evaluate the theory itself.

(B): Out of Scope. The theory doesn't depend on this point.

(D): Out of Scope. This isn't relevant to the theory either.

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